1960, an early tragedy is a glimpse into an amazing future for a student nurse.
|Tuesday, October 20th, 1960.
A frightening blizzard with howling winds blew in last night. It left snow piled high against the brick building used for housing nursing students. The smaller tree branches froze quickly and broke off, striking windows. The sounds kept me awake along with anxious thoughts circling my brain.
Shivering in my nightgown, I search the window to peek outside; a small glimpse of a glistening winter wonderland. The smell of blueberry pancakes, bacon and chicory coffee drifts up the stairs. A sudden wave of nausea overcomes me.
I hear the doorbell and sneak down the back stairs. I hear voices so I hide, watching from the alcove in the hall. I can see Dr. King has stopped by. He gives our Housemother a paper bag. Hopefully this is part of the plan to change my unfortunate situation. She has to look inside. She considers it her duty to protect the young nursing chicks entrusted to her care. The second part of the plan will have to be carefully staged. No one can know about it and I am frightened.
John King speaks with deep concern in his voice.
"Frannie has a mild infection so I picked this up at the pharmacy. Tell her it might cause nausea so eat some saltines. You are not to worry, Mrs. Tynsdale. I care about her."
Dr. King is flashing his famous dimples. He could be an award winning actor, like Richard Chamberlain in the TV show "Dr. Kildare". Of course, his bedside manners and looks help patients trust him with their very lives. He also uses those charms to date naive student nurses. He gives Mrs. Tynsdale a peck on the cheek. She blushes like a school girl.
I am dying inside but no one will know. I am used to covering up my true feelings. Mother says there is no reason to let anyone know our personal business. They don't know about this. It would change their lives and I have disappointed them enough.
Now, if a physician like John was asking to marry me. I would be treated like Cinderella in a glass carriage. I would wear a virginal white organza gown and receive a "no expenses spared" wedding.
'I'm dreaming ...John doesn't want me. What's wrong with me?'
The tears well up in my throat and threaten to spill over. How could it have all fallen apart?
As for John, he is off to care for humanity ... through snow, sleet, danger of all kinds: always the Hero. But not for me. Where would I possibly fit in his world?
Enough of feeling sorry for myself, it is time to put on my Nurse Nightingale cap. She is not allowed to have a private life with heartaches.
I greet Mrs. Tynsdale.
"Good Morning. I hope you slept well. The storm woke me up."
She studied my face, taking my chin in her warm hand.
"I didn't know you were ill, honey. Dr. King brought this medicine for you."
"It's nothing serious, one of those pesky bladder infections."
I proceeded to pour a cup of coffee and realized my hands were shaking. I jammed them in my robe pockets. My stomach was so queasy. Coffee wasn't a good idea but I was so sleep deprived from worrying.
Mrs. Tynsdale chuckled while cutting up vegetables for a stew.
"Well, he sure is a nice young man- great catch for a pretty smart girl."
She is a sweet motherly type, always neat as a pin in a starched apron, nutritious cook, and empathetic listener. Yet she is stern enough to keep a young man from sneaking in. Just the kind parents could trust to watch over their daughters.
John certainly was charming and looking at a bright future. Most parents thought physicians were just what a nursing student should look for. Many enrolled in school for that reason. That had never been my plan. I loved my classes, soaking up medical knowledge and patient care was interesting. I desperately wanted to go to medical school. I loved to take a history from a patient, examine them and then use their labs and x-rays to figure out a diagnosis. I was usually right although my instructors didn't encourage us. I was instructed that was the physician's job. If I spoke to the interns about what I thought, they didn't like it. But they all learned that the nursing staff wasn't to be ignored. Veteran RN's were a physician's best friend.
I climbed the steps to my own room. Right now it is quiet with class break for four days and most girls went home. Mine is a big room with a desk, chair, bookcase and a twin bed. My Mom came through, like a whirlwind and did what she does best, designed it for the girl she wished I was. It has a pink silk striped bedspread with lace trim and white throw pillows with ribbons. I have ballerina pictures and a music box complete with a small pink bathroom. It shows how little my Mom knows me but it doesn't really matter. All my medical books, both The Merck Manuel, Tabor's and a Physician's Desk Reference are here and that is what matters the most. The best thing is out of six rooms mine has a toilet and sink.
Now, an ugly bottle sits next to my bed. I am supposed to mix with juice or water and then drink it all down. This potent antibiotic mixture must be safe or John would not have gotten it for me. After all, he's a professional.
John's reaction to what I consider a miracle was, "It's nothing but a bunch of cells that is clinging to the wall of your uterus. It's feeding off your body, simply a "parasite".
I keep trying to use that word "parasite" to diminish the pain but it doesn't change anything. I think I still want to love John even though he keeps it all clinical and scientific. He really feels that it is all cells and can't survive outside the uterus and he is right. He believes abortion should be legal so taking a chance with a "unlicensed doc with dirty instruments" wouldn't be necessary. Many women have died.
Yes, there is a life inside me. Something that I am feeding and sheltering. I am supposed to be protecting it. I want to have this innocent part of myself and hold it close. However, I am too young to support the child on my own. I know John is right. After all, I am a nursing student at St. Luke's Hospital School of Nursing and he is an intern that doesn't want a child right now.
My name is Frances Susan Acorn and I am eighteen. I am the daughter of a prestigious surgeon, Charles Laughton Acorn II, and a housewife who sits on numerous boards, Lauren Frances Worth. My mother's family has old money. I grew up very well with boarding schools and lessons of every kind. I was schooled in etiquette and the arts so I could marry someone of my class and bear children. My parents could help me with this baby.
From the time I was a little girl and read about Florence Nightingale, I wanted to be a nurse. I wanted a husband someday and children but most of all, I wanted to be just like Florence. I did volunteer in the hospital as a Red Cross Volunteer and heard the nurses talk. I found out how the hospital ran. I knew it was my life's goal to be a Registered Nurse if I couldn't be a physician.
Although my father is a surgeon, he doesn't think much of nurses. They do his biding but are glorified bedpan carriers, no matter how many times they have "saved" his patients. He accepts their interventions when a patient bleeds after surgery or an infection occurs but denies the value of a good RN that spots a problem and often saves a life. In fact, he often blames the nursing staff. In his Operating Suite, he is King. Thank goodness all physicians aren't like my Dad.
After my high school graduation, I announced I wanted to pursue nursing. My parents were very angry as this was not the path they had planned. Then I brought up the possibility of medical school. I was an excellent student. I thought my Dad was going to explode. There were two OB/GYN MD's that were female. Then there was an internist and one general surgeon but they were not respected.
College was expected for me but I was to pursue Liberal Arts and then hopefully meet a man of means. Nursing school is quite different from a college track. My parents feel the girls I am in school with come from lower to middle class means. They agreed to pay for it but expect me to come home afterwards and pursue college for Nursing Administration. I had agreed to think about that. Now things have changed.
I can't begin to imagine what my parents would feel about my pregnancy. They would be thrilled if I was marrying a physician and then having his child. My heart is breaking about this situation. I can't believe it has happened either.
I was just beginning my second year of nursing school when I met Dr. John King. I had two more years to go before graduation. We met as I was cleaning up an elderly man after he had vomited a large amount of coffee ground material which I knew was old blood.
Two physicians entered the room. One was Dr. Ian Itkin, an Attending General Surgeon. He had an intern with him that he was obviously doing rounds with.
I stepped back as Dr. Itkin listened to the patient's abdomen with his stethoscope. The intern was watching me and he actually winked. He was very handsome with tousled cinnamon hair that looked like he had just climbed out of bed and dancing black eyes with long lashes behind glasses. His dimples completed the look of a mischievous elf mixed with sexual energy. I believe I fell in love right then.
Dr. Itkin cleared his throat.
"Dr. King, would you like to auscultate this gentleman's abdomen and tell me your findings?"
Dr. King listened for one to two minutes, moving the stethoscope around the tight distended abdomen.
"Sir, there are high pitched sounds in the upper quadrants and dim to nothing below."
"How should we proceed?"
"Sir, I believe we should insert a nasogastric tube, hook it to suction and see what returns from the stomach."
"Correct plan, Dr. King. Hmm...Why don't you do just that, get some blood work, then we'll decide if surgery is necessary. Perhaps the conservative approach, in decompressing the GI tract will help. Have this nurse assist you."
Dr. Itkin left the two of us and our patient alone.
Mr. Benjamin was actually a small frail man. His belly was now the largest part of him. He looked both confused and miserable. Since no one was speaking, I jumped in.
"Dr. King, can I get Mr. Benjamin something for nausea while you explain the procedure to him?"
"Yes, Nurse Acorn, some Compazine, please?"
"Ten milligrams, Dr.?"
He nodded his head.
I knew Compazine would not only help the nausea but also calm my poor patient for a very unpleasant procedure.
Dr. John King and I worked together to put the tube down our patient. I gave Mr. Benjamin ice chips to swallow as John advanced the tube and blood began to come through it.
We looked at each other gravely. Both of us knew he needed surgery. Mr. Benjamin was losing bright red blood rapidly so John arranged for a surgeon and I went to the Blood Bank to get blood to replenish what he was losing. John and I took turns pushing iced saline through a syringe into the stomach to try to slow the bleeding down until the surgeon could remove a portion of the stomach.
Mr. Benjamin couldn't speak very well with the nausea and tube but his frightened eyes asked all. 'Am I dying? Is all that blood coming from all over my body...how much more can I lose? Can you save me?'
Dr King looked frightened also.
"We can do surgery to remove the area that is bleeding. We will replace what you are losing with blood that is your type, okay?"
He nodded his head but tears ran down into his mouth. He looked like a little boy. I took a Kleenex and wiped what I could.
"I will call your wife and tell her what is happening."
He pressed my hand.
John and I worked so well together. It was a team as I anticipated his orders before he requested them. I sedated Mr. Benjamin as much as I could. He lived although he was critical and in ICU after the surgery was done and most of his stomach was removed due to bleeding ulcers.
John was excited to be able to help with the surgery. It was only his fourth time to scrub in on a major case. I envied him.
That very evening he came to my dorm and asked Mrs. Tynsdale if I could go and get coffee with him. She allowed me to go for two hours.
There is a place across from the hospital called "The Cake Cafe". It is a greasy spoon, open twenty-four hours with fast take out, perfect for the hospital staff. It is a hotbed of gossip but I never heard about my boyfriend's secret. People do protect others perhaps due to their own vulnerability and the fact that I have only a handful of friends.
I loved the place because it is as alive as the hospital. John and I started going there.
"You remember the guy with a light bulb? He claimed he sat on it."
"The one you didn't even question."
"I didn't want to embarrass him. Besides what difference did it make? I was curious but, perhaps they were playing a party game."
"I am surprised you didn't break it."
"I needed to dilate, pump some air, and remove with a steady hand."
"Also, an extremely sedated patient. One move and a perforated bowel."
"Do you believe the things we talk about? It's never dull, is it?"
"I believe that poor man wanted to vanish. I felt so sorry for him."
"Well, he came back in and asked for you. He had a disgusting discharge."
"You aren't kidding! Some people take chances. It's hard to talk about that kind of sex. It isn't something we learned about in school."
He looked deeply into my eyes and I knew I could deny him nothing.
"You have a tender heart. I suppose that is why I'm crazy about you."
We laughed with such ease, looking at each other.
Our eyes spoke Barrett and Browning. I felt like I was falling off a cliff.
Over the next month, we found the time to see a couple of movies; "The Apartment" and "Exodus". They were wonderful but I couldn't tell you the plot. We sat in the back and made out like teenagers. We were on the verge of the next step.
At work, we tried to team up on the same cases because we anticipated what the other needed so well. We laughed about how fast we could get to a case; do a history, get X-Rays, stitch them up, cast if needed then admit them or street them.
We were both on night shift. John was working twenty-four straight hours as he did every other weekend. We had a particularly bad trauma come in. It was a multiple car collision with children involved. We are not a Burn Unit so the twins were taken to St. Phillips.
One car had a male drunk driver with his female passenger and they had crossed the median into an oncoming lane. They hit a car full of people. It was a family of six returning from a soccer game. Mom was DOA (dead on arrival), Dad had multiple fractures and injuries including an open chest wound that caused a heart problem. The five year old boy, Jason, had minor injuries.
Two year old Cindy, had a closed head injury that required an immediate craniotomy to reduce swelling. She was comatose. The other two children, twin sons that were eight, had second and third degree burns from the gas tank exploding. Those children didn't have much hope. We found out in the morning they had died.
It was a stressful night and when John finally got a chance to take a nap in the On Call room. I went in to give him a kiss before I went back to the dorm. I was crying over the awful night and he was comforting me. Things got carried away and soon comfort became something else. He was so experienced I barely realized my clothes were being removed. I was a virgin and there was so much pain as he entered that part of me. He whispered endearments and I knew it would be better after this.I even apologized for not being better at sex. I thought he had used a condom. I was in love and naive about lovemaking even with my medical knowledge.
Then I missed a period. I had never done that before. John drew blood.
I was pregnant and thrilled. There was a little baby with my compassion, John's brains and our good looks inside me. John was not excited. He had a dozen reasons why this wasn't the time. He was the fool that didn't use a condom.
So here we are. I have a way out with a mixture of antibiotics, a suppository to open the uterus and then John will scrape and suck out the contents. I have to do this. I weep openly and swallow the antibiotic mixture as fast as I can. It is awful. I lay on the bed hugging my old Teddy Bear "Max".
About ten that night John came over and snuck in through the window. He had an instrument tray and some medications. I tried not to be a baby. I had studied about D&C's and knew the medical jargon and how to care for a patient afterwards but it is different when it is you. He reassured me it was done all the time when women had miscarriages and kept bleeding so the doctors scraped the inside of the uterus to get the placenta that was left. It was a minor procedure.
He had done it with supervision about ten times.
He gave me a shot of Demerol and another tranquilizer, then he started an IV to give me fluids and Pitocin ,a drug that would cause the uterus to contract. It was used in labor to induce it.
There was a knock at the window. John was paying another resident to make sure all was done right. This doctor had an Ambu bag ("just in case") and some other drugs.
They set up a sterile appearing operating room. I was so sleepy, I crawled on the bed and drifted off. I felt a sharp instrument with immediate cramping.
The two of them were whispering.
"Turn up the Pit and watch for bleeding for several hours. It shouldn't be more than a heavy menstrual period."
"Thank you, Pete. God, I owe you, man."
"Yeah, man, I know shit happens."
My stereo was playing The Doors "Light my Fire". Forever that song will transport me back to the scene. .
I have no idea when John left. The last time I remember looking at the clock it was six in the morning. I was under a blanket with bloody pads below me. The cramping wasn't bad. The IV was out. There were three bottles of pills. Each labeled in Johns writing. One for antibiotics, another for a pill to slow the bleeding and one with narcotics in it.
Two hours later, I started cramping and bleeding. It was so painful I couldn't get to the bathroom so I wet the bed. I was sweating and chilling. I wasn't thinking correctly. Darkness came over me and I alternated between sleep and terrible cramping.
Mrs. Tynsdale found me in clots of blood with a thready pulse. I had left a note to call John. She did call him and he came over immediately with his fellow intern, Les Morrow. They started IV's in both arms, hooked me up to an oxygen tank, and gave me antibiotics. John and Les argued about doing another Dilatation and Curettage right then. With all the blood I had lost, apparently there still was a baby. This one wasn't going anywhere.
Les was angry.
"John, she has been through enough. Do you want to tell Mark the truth? How could you do a surgical procedure here?"
Dr. Mark Evans was a second year resident and their superior.
"No, let's see what happens. I have to get to the hospital. Can you stay with her? I will make it up to you."
Les looked at his colleague with disgust and nodded.
Les gave me a sedative.
"Frannie, you have to hang on here, babe. Give it all you got! You still have a little baby that needs you."
Les had said the magic words. I loved this child and wanted it more than anything. Mrs. Tynsdale gave me a sponge bath after Les checked me for further bleeding. I was groggy but heard Les talking.
"John must have missed the fetus somehow. He evidently didn't scrape all of the uterus. After all that contracting and Pitocin, this is one for the medical journals. There is still a baby. Imagine that? This kid wants to be born."
Les wiped my face and read from "The Prophet". It took about three days and I was still as weak as a kitten. I could barely walk to the bathroom with help. Since there wasn't a way to give me a blood transfusion, it was a slow process to build my iron back up. I hated liver and Mrs. Tynsdale practically force fed it to me.
Mrs. Tynsdale never called my parents, the police or notified the Medical Board or Nursing School. I am not sure why except she liked Les and he told her it would be a mistake for every one unless I took a turn for the worse.
I saw very little of John those days but Les was around. He checked in every day, sometimes sitting there holding my hand. He would make excuses for John.
I received a letter from the Head of Nursing Services. It was a summons.
Dear Miss Acorn,
We are sorry to hear of your recent illness. We did receive and understand the physician's excuse that you would not be able to participate in nursing classes for two weeks.
It has been two weeks now and we request that you return to duty full time. If unable to do so, you need to let us know why or possibly move your personal possessions from the dormitory and resign. You will have to pay until the end of the year, according to the contract you signed.
We look forward to seeing you in class on Monday.
Miss. Margaret Notley, R.N., B.S.N
Professor of Nursing
Head of Nursing Services
I would return but try to keep the pregnancy under wraps as long as I could. I knew when it was found out I would have to leave but I would have more experience.
The following days and months were like a never ending merry-go-round. Mrs. Tynsdale was wonderful to me. John was furious and let me know he didn't approve. He tried to get me to agree to an adoption.
I was laying in bed one night and felt a tiny wave cross my abdomen. It was "quickening". I had read and heard about this, the first physical feeling the mother has of the baby. It was real. This baby truly was a miracle. I began to talk to the baby, sing to it and even read books. I had read that if you play classical music, it calms the baby down.
At five months I was really beginning to show and didn't know how I was going to hide it much longer. Mrs. Tynsdale kept altering my uniforms and making excuses to all for me. I was wearing a girdle. We were doing our Obstetrics rotation and I loved it. I was able to feed, diaper and love all those newborn babies. I was in on many deliveries. The physicians liked me and I was smart. Many asked why I had not gone to medical school. How I had dreamed of it and now it was impossible.
I was seven months and wheeling a stretcher into the operating room when my water broke.
I sat down and cried while someone else took over. The contractions had started and I was wheeled to the ER. The charade was up. The Director was called and she wanted to know who was responsible. In those days, it wasn't just a woman's business.
"Dr. John King, Mam."
"Impossible, he is married. His wife is overseas, a wonderful woman. We've met."
I believe I fainted at that point. The next thing I remember was someone screaming.
'This is a hospital.. We can't disturb our patients like that.'
It was me screaming and I was in terrible pain.
'The baby, my baby, it's coming!'
"Get out of my way! I have a right to be here."
It was a man's voice and not John's.
Les burst into the room. A nurse stood there.
"Only the father can come in."
"I am the father and a doctor here so, I suggest you get the hell out of my way!"
The woman ran out as Les barked, "Get her some Morphine now."
He walked over to the bed and kissed me on the lips.
"No more John. He doesn't deserve you or this baby. I love you and you will grow to love me. If anyone asks again, I am the father, okay?"
I nodded my head. It wasn't a good time to argue with an angry crazy man and I did care for him.
Suddenly, I felt a sense of serenity wash over me. Everything was going to be all right.
One of the Obstetrical attendings came in, Dr. Oliver Talon, and spoke to Les and I about the experience I had with the incomplete D&C. The blood work showed that my hematocrit was high enough to try labor.
Les helped me with breathing and when I was 100% effaced and ten centimeters dilated, the baby was ready to come. Les delivered her. It was a beautiful sight, they truly bonded as father and daughter. There was an invisible umbilical cord that had been between them for months, he was immediately her father and protector. .
Amelia Dawn came into the world at three in the afternoon on a beautiful Tuesday, snow gently falling. She had a head full of jet black shiny hair. Her skin was perfect, a peach with down fuzz. For four pounds and three ounces, she was alert and looking all around. The world was her oyster.
Les and I married when Amelia was two months old. His name is listed as father and I believe John was relieved.
I took classes while she was small, graduated and then entered medical school. It was the most demanding yet satisfying goal I have ever accomplished. When I passed the boards for my medical license, it was the proudest day of my life except Amelia's birth.
Les and I share a Family Practice in Detroit. We work on a sliding scale. Amelia, now six, has been joined by Daniel and then, Lauren, a handful at two. We have a nanny that commutes between the office and our home. I believe I am done with adding to the world, but you never know.
Les' parents live close by and they are so down to earth. His Mom, Susan, has taught me so much about cooking and raising children.
We have a renovated, turn of the century home and our own garden. It isn't unusual to have guests that stop by and then stay to work in the garden and can vegetables.
We often have sing-a-longs and have been graced by Pete Seeger with The Weavers and one time Bob Dylan came by. Seeger and others, who dared to protest with music, were blacklisted as Communists by the McCarthy people. That was the time we were in Vietnam to stop the spread of Communism.
We marched in protest over the Vietnam Conflict. Les wants to go over as a Medic and help while I run the practice. But in my dreams I see painful things. I understand death is part of life but we have to stop the violence. These children, ours and the Asian ones, didn't ask for it.
Les must go where his heart leads him. That is what we teach our children and they must see, we live what we preach.
He writes letters as often as he can, filled with descriptions he knows I crave. I worry about his physical and emotional health. Sometimes he even includes poetry. I send him pictures of the kids and care packages.
Dear Wife and Children,
I am here, in the mud
marching with tattered soldiers
Sleeping in burned bloody huts.
I bandage and hold fallen brothers up.
I am here, I stretch morphine,
My tools come from a magic kit.
I can mix penicillin with saline,
then try to keep wounds clean.
I am here, your Dad is learning.
Narcotics alone can't ease a lonely death.
But it can stop the pain
as napalm burns a final breath.
The US got pulled into an all-out shooting war of its own with the North Vietnamese. First, military advisors were given permission to fire back if fired upon in 1959. By 1965, American combat units were being deployed. In April of 1969, an all-time high of over 543,000 US troops were in Vietnam.
Les came home to us but he wasn't the same. During the Tet Offensive, he was almost killed trying to save a woman and her young son. He sustained a closed head injury and gets confused at times. He gets disability and is unable to help me with the clinic. Sometimes he is just as clear as can be and that is also frustrating for him.
Life is beautiful. Look at the miracle of Amelia and my ability to become a physician by a government grant. There is the wonderful work Les and I have been able to do; treat patients who would have been turned away and died elsewhere. Our other children are healthy and will do great things.
Les cured many and eased the pain of those he couldn't. He came home and is walking although he forgets where he is sometimes. He can still quote Whitman without missing a beat and sing Dylan songs. The brain is an awesome organ. We are a close family and live where there are clear mountain springs, the fish practically jump into the nets, and soil is black with nutrients. We live off the land and share with our neighbors.
Yes, life is beautiful.
By Kathie Stehr